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Graphic by Harold Arthur McNeill

1,633 words

“Hi guys!” said the waitress.

She was speaking to me and my mother. The restaurant was the Olive Garden, and it was in the mid-1990s. I felt affronted on two levels. First, it was far too informal a way to refer to patrons; unforgivably familiar, really. Second, I was not there with one of my “guy” friends at all. I was there with my grey-haired, sixty-something year-old mother. This was the first time I noticed the term “guys” used in this way. Now you can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere – and every time I hear it I cringe.

I’ve even heard it at the Metropolitan Opera. Once, I was standing in line at the Met with a large number of other people. (It must have been for Wagner, as he tends to attract a big crowd, and I probably would not have been there otherwise.) One of the ushers, a squat, mixed-race looking man with an accent started trying to accelerate the process by saying “Move along, guys!”

I thought about waving him over and saying “This is the Metropolitan Opera. Not a bus station.” But nowadays you never know how somebody is going to react when you try to correct them. And who am I to correct? We’re all just “guys,” after all. I looked around at the other patrons, all the grey haired gentlemen in sport coats with their grey haired ladies in fox fur who had paid hundreds of dollars to be there. Their heads were slightly bowed. They showed no signs of being affronted by this epsilon semi-moron’s “guys.” But surely they had heard it. Didn’t they care?

[2]Perhaps they’d just been through the security lines at the airport a few too many times. This is another place where you are likely to get “guyed.” “Take everything out of your pockets, guys!” “Take your laptops out of your bags, guys!” Did you just have a mental picture of a fat, surly black woman in a blue TSA blouse bellowing this? If so, we may have achieved psychic rapport. Those patches on their sleeves say “Department of Homeland Security” (which still sounds to me like something out of a dystopian TV movie about a future Amerika). I look at these women and always think of Sky Marshal Tehat Meru in the film Starship Troopers (who, in turn, always makes me think of Dr. Joycelyn Elders). Doesn’t it make you feel safer to be protected by an elite security force?

[3]And, as many have pointed out, the real purpose of TSA screening is just to make us feel safer. It’s not likely to stop terrorists determined to hijack a plane. (And anyone with a little imagination can figure out how easy it would be to thwart these security procedures.) Of course there is yet another purpose to the airport security lines, and that is to make us docile and tractable. How? By robbing us of our dignity. By forcing us to queue up and partially disrobe and then submit ourselves to a scanner that reveals more than our ancestors saw on their wedding nights. All set to the tune of “Move along guys. Come on guys. Take off your shoes guys . . .” And sung by the sort of people who four decades ago were scrubbing out your grandma’s toilet.

“Guys” is all part of that process of reducing us, of leveling everyone down. This is as true of restaurants and American opera houses as it is of the TSA lines. In a way it’s nothing new: it’s a typical American thing. The tendency from the beginning of America has been to level everyone down; to erase distinctions. Conservatives who yearn for a 1950s where people wore ties onto airplanes and still called their co-workers Mister or Miss are just wishing they could live when the rot was less noticeable. America was founded on the rejection of natural distinctions between men. Of course, our Founding Fathers were saner men than those living today. They didn’t really believe that there were no distinctions between people. But all the rhetoric about equality eventually took its toll. The wrong sort of people started to believe it.

I’m reminded of what D. H. Lawrence says [4] (in Studies in Classic American Literature) about Fenimore Cooper’s novel Homeward Bound. The plot concerns a genteel American family, the Effinghams, who are sailing back to America from their European vacation. On board the ship they meet “the ugly American” incarnate, the vulgar Septimus Dodge, who insists on making their acquaintance. Lawrence writes:

Now the aristocratic Effinghams, Homeward Bound from Europe to America, are at the mercy of Mr. Dodge: Septimus. He is their compatriot, so they may not disown him. Had they been English, of course, they would never once have let themselves become aware of his existence. But no. They are American democrats, and therefore, if Mr. Dodge marches up and says: “Mr. Effingham? Pleased to meet you, Mr. Effingham” – why, then Mr. Effingham is forced to reply: “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dodge.” If he didn’t he would have the terrible hounds of democracy on his heels and at his throat, the moment he landed in the Land of the Free. An Englishman is free to continue unaware of the existence of a fellow-countryman, if the looks of that fellow-countryman are distasteful. But every American citizen is free to force his presence upon you, no matter how unwilling you may be.

Had Fenimore Cooper written this novel today, Septimus Dodge would have marched right up to the Effinghams and said “Hi guys!” And had Mr. Effingham made the mistake of proffering his first name, old Septimus would surely have made immediate use of it.

Ah, yes: the first name thing. I started noticing this in the 90s also. I would drive up to the teller window at the bank and, after depositing or cashing my check, the guy behind the glass would say “Can I do anything else for you today, Jef?” Or I’d hand my credit card to the clerk at the grocery store who’d swipe it and hand it back with a “Thank you, Jef.” It was as if they were daring me to correct them: “That’s Mr. Costello to you.” I didn’t. Why? Well, I suppose I didn’t want to create resentment in people I deal with regularly. But I suppose part of it, to be completely honest, is that I’m an American too.

I can’t resist quoting a couple of other lines from Lawrence’s magnificent essay: “What was the persecution of a haughty Lord or a marauding Baron or an inquisitorial Abbot compared to the persecution of a million Dodges?” And:

When America set out to destroy Kings and Lords and Masters, and the whole paraphernalia of European superiority, it pushed a pin right through its own body, and on that pin it still flaps and buzzes and twists in misery. The pin of democratic equality. Freedom. There’ll never be any life in America till you pull the pin out and admit natural inequality. Natural superiority, natural inferiority. Till such time, Americans just buzz round like various sorts of propellers, pinned down by their freedom and equality.

After being “guyed” and addressed as “Jef” by strangers countless times, I have begun, for the first time in my life, to long for old age. You see, I imagine that just about the only thing I’ll have to look forward to in old age is speaking my mind to people. Old people can get away with that. I still remember reading about how the old, palsied Katherine Hepburn walked up to some man chewing gum in a bookstore and said “Chew! Chew! Chew! That’s disgusting!” I’d like to be able to do that.

But a thought nags me. Perhaps by then I’ll be so beaten down I’ll be even meeker than I am now. Like those grey-haired men with their heads bowed, queuing up to be groped by a pock-marked Hispanic TSA screener. And perhaps by then the humiliation and indignities will have become far worse, far harder to take. Lately I keep thinking about all those Russian men who pickled their insides with vodka because life under communism was just a long process of chipping away their self-respect, day after day.

Heidegger was right about the metaphysical identity of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Both, at root, were founded upon a materialistic metaphysics. And both aimed at achieving a “classless society.” But the Soviets rewarded talent and intelligence. Western art and Western music were kept alive, publically subsidized and protected under Communist regimes. Meanwhile, we were slowly but surely abandoning everything that was noble and beautiful, because “the majority” had other uses for its money. In the end, it was American-style capitalism that was really the great leveler, not Communism. And the great corruptor.

We have succeeded where the Communists failed, and realized the classless society. Simply put: today we’ve got no class at all. The great Goddess of Democracy has decreed that we all put our pants on one leg at a time, and that we all break wind. Hallelujah! We are delivered from the tyranny of anyone thinking they are better than us. We are all “guys” now (the ladies included).

Let us look into the sunlit present and gaze upon what we are today, now that the mountains of men have been hewn down so as not to offend the valleys. We are processed meat, marinated in 500 channels, twittered, numbed by Paxil, then pre-sliced and fed into the slavering jaws of the great corporate Moloch. So, queue up guys. Take your shoes off, guys. Empty your pockets, guys.